One of the things in life that I have come to appreciate most is its unpredictability. If someone had told me a few weeks ago that I would soon embark on a trip that would lead me to 5 countries in 5 days, just to give a TED talk to 750 people in no other place than Iran? IMPOSSIBLE.
In this piece I’d like to share with you everything I learned along the way.
A week before my photo exhibition about Iran opened in San Francisco, I was at an event where I ended up having a great conversation with someone whose name I couldn’t remember a few days later. I then tried to find his name on the participant list on Facebook. While doing so, I came across the Persian-sounding name of a girl who had also been there. Curious about who she was, I clicked on her profile and found myself flipping through pictures that she had recently taken in Iran. In case you are wondering, yes, I think this qualifies as Facebook-stalking someone. Since I could see her shared passion for photography and Iran, I allowed myself to invite her to the opening of my exhibition. Three days later I met Asya for the first time.
Since I had to play a social butterfly and greet 200+ people that evening, I we hardly got to talk. Our attempts to meet up in the days following the opening failed due to our busy schedules. So she left for Southern California and I headed to Latin America for work. A few weeks later, Asya reached out to me while I was in Argentina, asking for a chat over the phone.
She told me that she was co-organizing TEDxKish, the first global TEDx in Iran. The “global” qualified the event to go for more than one day and have international speakers and participants. The fact that Kish island was a free-visa zone — despite being under Iranian sovereignty — certainly made it the perfect location. And it didn’t take too long for her to ask me whether I would like to contribute.
My first reaction was: YES OF COURSE!!! So when I got off the phone with her at 11pm, I was awake until 4AM writing different speech proposals. Less than 24 hours later she had my resume, motivation letter and three speech drafts. The following evening I got to talk to Amir, the head curator for TEDxKish. Once again I was on a call that went until 4AM my time.
The conversation with Amir was absolutely daunting. Not only was he taking apart all my three proposals, but for the first time I began to understand the sheer magnitude of that invitation. 750 people in the audience — coming from all over the world. A long list of accomplished speakers with whom I would share the stage. And then the actual opportunity to share an idea with my people… providing an intellectual stimulus in a country that has suffered such a severe brain drain over the last 30+ years. I became incredibly intimidated and was wondering whether I was getting ahead of myself.
My excitement took a massive hit when he told me that I would have to be in Kish 2 days before the event to do all necessary rehearsals, etc. The event was on April 17th and 18th and since I had a speaking engagement in Switzerland on the 17th (an entrepreneurship conference), it was impossible for me to get there ahead of time. I was clear that I had to make a decision between those two events. Absolutely eager to accept the invitation, I told him that I would find “a solution.”
The next morning, I felt absolutely miserable. Not only completely sleep-deprived (second consecutive night with <4hs of sleep) on an already stressful work trip abroad, but also in such a difficult decision-making situation. To make things worse, Amir’s criticism on my topics made me extremely uncomfortable. I was a complete mess the following hours. Constantly ranging between picking up the phone and canceling my speaking engagement in Switzerland and emailing Amir to decline the invitation from TED. It then was a conversation with my friend and mentor John that helped me gain clarity: “it’s not about how you decide, but about what principles and moral framework you base your decision on.”
With that in mind, I asked myself whether I could justify such selfish decision to cancel a commitment just because something “better” had come up… and the answer was no. So I wrote an email to Amir, thankfully declining the invitation so I could honor my commitment in Switzerland. In that moment, I had given him EVERY reason to walk away from me. He had never met me, I didn’t have a proper talk, very little time to rehearse, and we were way past the speaker deadline … as I said, EVERY reason to reply “Thanks Omid, maybe next time.”
But he didn’t. He got back to me, saying that he was willing to make an exception and encouraging me to come if I could make it to the event. So with 2.5 weeks left to the event, I looked into flights and realized that there was a way to make it. Not an easy one, but it was possible. So I booked my flights and took every single minute to prepare my speech which I wanted to be about how we could redefine human interactions by “Breaking the Habit of Smalltalk.” And this is how it went down…
On the Tuesday before the TED event (which took place on the following Saturday) I did my first and only rehearsal in front of 30 colleagues at Google. The day after, Wednesday, I flew out from San Francisco to Zurich on a red-eye. I got there Thursday afternoon and spent the entire day & night (< 3 hours sleep) to write and prepare my speech about “Disrupting the Entrepreneurial Mind” for the START summit in St. Gallen! Then, 45 minutes after my speech (it’s Friday morning), I was already sitting in a car heading to Zurich airport. I then flew to Munich where I had a 5-hour layover. Took a shower, slept for 2 hours, and rehearsed my speech with a bunch of strangers at the Lufthansa Senator Lounge (I literally walked up to them and asked them whether they want to hear a TED talk). I then took a red-eye to Dubai, got there on Saturday morning and had another 5-hour wait for my connection flight to Kish.
That “connection flight to Kish?” Well, it almost broke my neck. Kish island is a 25-minute flight from Dubai and Kish Airways operates a single airplane on that route. I knew I would arrive in Kish at noon and that I would have exactly 4 hours until my scheduled talk at 4pm. As if I wasn’t sleep-deprived, nervous, stressed, exhausted and anxious enough… I looked at the board and MY. JAW. DROPPED. A 90-minute delay…. my heart and mind were racing: are 2.5 hours enough? Would they take me off the program? What if they cancel the flight or have more delays? I WAS SUCH A WRECK.
Fortunately, it was the only delay. I got to Kish, passport stamped, rushed to the Hotel — MY ROOM IS NOT READY YET??!! –, showered, shaved, ironed my shirt and then ran to the convention center to check in: “Scheybani is your name? Sure you are a speaker? Impossible .. they all arrived here a few days ago…” Got him to believe me, ran backstage, tried to power-nap, it didn’t work, took a double shot of espresso, didn’t work either, went through my speech one last time, another shot of espresso — a little better now — got wired up, and then I was pushed on stage….
The day I got invited I had every reason to say no. I had just finished my first photo exhibition, had my parents visiting, was on a stressful work trip in Brazil and Argentina, had finished a speaker engagement in Canada and the one in Switzerland coming up, had plans to go to Coachella — I was really exhausted and had enough reasons to justify to myself that it wouldn’t be a good idea. But there is something absolutely magical about getting the opportunity to contribute to the people and country you hold so dear — despite the energy, effort and cost it requires.
I’m fortunate to look back on an experience that taught me 3 simple things about life. First, taking small risks in life can really pay off. If I had not dared to invite a random girl to my exhibition, I would have never gotten the TED invitation in return. One small message made all the difference. Second, your body and mind are capable of doing things that are nothing short of amazing. I was seriously worried about whether I could get there and get on stage, but when you feel you are doing the right things, your body and mind can pull off an incredible performance. Third, when there is something you are willing to stay up for until 4AM … it’s probably one of your life’s passions. The energy and passion I felt to make this happen were unparalleled and unbound.
As I was bidding farewell to Amir the next day, I looked into his eyes and asked him: “you had every reason to accept my “no” … why did you get back to me, encouraging me to come even though you didn’t know me?” …he just smiled and said: “you sent me all right signals.”